In celebration of Prince Valiant’s 75th anniversary this month, I decided it was finally time to watch the 1954 film. I had heard some negative things about the film, and I admit most of them are true, but it just depends on your tolerance level for the basic flaws of 1950s films. There was nothing terribly wrong with this film. In fact, I enjoyed it a great deal and would watch it again—and there aren’t many films I would watch again.
Rather than provided a full plot summary, since I don’t want to give away the whole story for those who haven’t seen the film, I’ll just point out what was good and bad about the film, and what was different from the Prince Valiant strip. For those looking for a full plot summary, visit http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prince_Valiant_%281954_film%29
What is great, or at least good, about the film?
- The color! The film is beautiful—the Cinemascope and the Technicolor are fantastic. The costumes are gorgeous, colorful, and reflect the colorfulness of Foster’s comic strip.
- Foster’s illustrations are used as the backdrop at the beginning of the film while the credits are given.
- The scenery is fabulous. There are three amazing castles in the film, and I only wish I knew what castles they were. The first castle, where Valiant and his parents reputedly live in an isolated part of Britain, I believe is Eilean Donan Castle in Scotland—an often photographed castle. The other two I did not recognize, but the castle used for Camelot specifically was stunning. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any listing of where the movie was filmed.
- The actors, for the most part. Wagner is not ideal as Valiant, but Janet Leigh is beautiful as Princess Aleta, as is Debra Paget as her sister Ilene. And James Mason blew me away—I always think of him as just being kind of old and gentlemanly, but with a beard he is quite dashing and debonair, even for a villain.
- The film is fast-paced, and when it’s not, you don’t notice because your eyes are so busy enjoying the beauty of the film. I don’t understand all the bad reviews at Amazon complaining that it is slow—perhaps people like 21st century action films that lack character development. Give me a 1950s action film any day.
- The special effects are quite good with the scene where the castle is on fire being very dramatic and effect as the good and bad guys battle. The sword fighting is also quite well done in my opinion, although I’m no expert on sword fighting.
- The musical score by Franz Waxman. I never heard of Waxman before, but his music is fantastic. The film has a soundtrack that sounds a bit like and is worthy of Gone with the Wind. (Waxman created the scores for such great films as Sunset Boulevard, Demetrius and the Gladiators, and Rebecca.)
What is different from the comic strip?
- Valiant and his parents are in exile but not exactly in the Fens, just a remote castle.
- Valiant’s father is the king of Skanee, rather than Thule.
- The villain, Sir Brack (played by James Mason) isn’t someone I recall from the comic strips—at least not the early ones. He is interestingly the grandson of Constans, who is also King Arthur’s grandfather, only Brack’s father did not acknowledge him. Consequently, Brack believes he deserves the throne and is plotting to win it for himself.
- There is no witch Horrit, and no prophecy that Valiant will be unhappy.
- Valiant is in love with Aleta, while in the comic strip, he’s in love with Ilene. Ilene is Aleta’s sister in the film, but I don’t recall a sister in the comic strip.
- Valiant has a rival for the hand of the woman he loves, but instead of Prince Arn, it’s Gawain, and Valiant is too much of a friend to him to fight him for Aleta.
- Val helps his father regain his kingdom, but it is not as peaceful a transition as in the comic strip where Sligon decides to trade Thule for the Fens. And I thought that plot twist a weakness in the strip anyway, so here Hollywood did better than Foster in my opinion.
Note: I won’t reveal whether Aleta dies, like Ilene does in the comic strip—that would be giving too much away.
What is bad, or could be better?
Admittedly, the film does have a few faults:
- Robert Wagner as Prince Valiant—I don’t think he’s awful in the role. He’s okay. Many people complain about what a terrible actor he is, but I admit I enjoyed him in TV shows like Hart to Hart. The worst thing about him as Valiant is his hair. Somehow that long curled black hair works in the comic strip, but it looks silly on Wagner, and I’m sure it’s a wig—how did people in the Middle Ages get their hair to curl like that without a curling iron? I suspect they didn’t. Wagner also looks a bit too childish and silly, like he belongs in the TV series Merlin instead.
- Sterling Hayden looks like a Gawain—he’s big and strong like a knight should be, but when he opens his mouth, he sounds like Howard Keel playing Wild Bill Hickok in Calamity Jane, and his word choice isn’t much better with phrases like “blast it” and “my beef-bones.”
- The plot to kill Sligon includes stabbing him through the back of his throne, which is made of cloth in the back and set against a curtain. STUPID! What king would not have a solid back to his throne and put it against a wall? Seriously, the king always needs to watch his back.
I feel overall my complaints are few. The film is obviously part of the 1950s time period, but I honestly would rather watch these old movies than most of the films made today. If you like old movies, you will enjoy the film a great deal. If you love Prince Valiant and are willing to watch the film for what it attempts to do rather than for how it doesn’t match the comic strip, you’ll probably enjoy it as well.
It’s interesting to note that when Hal Foster was asked in an interview for his opinion of the film (reprinted in Prince Valiant Vol. 1: 1937-1938 Fantagraphics), he said the following:
SCHREIBER: How did you like the movie version of Prince Valiant?
FOSTER: It was a magnificent film—the scenery, the castles, everything was beautiful. They used all my research: Sir Gawain had the right emblem on his shield, everything was right. But somehow, the story was a little bit childish…it was Hollywood.
SCHREIBER: Did you approve of the choice of Robert Wagner for the leading role?
FOSTER: I thought Wagner was a little bit immature—his face was immature, he ran around with his mouth open. But all in all I got a kick out of it; it was quite an experience [In certain ways] I had nothing to do with it: First they sent me the script and asked me to improve it by making suggestions, but they must have lost my letter. Then they paid me a fabulous salary to come out there; but I knew that I had no say, and that I’d just be heart-broken, because nothing I would say or do would change the Hollywood pattern.
If I haven’t yet, let me make it clear that I encourage people to see Prince Valiant for themselves. The film is available on Amazon On Demand and through a few other retailers.
Tyler R. Tichelaar, Ph.D. is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition, available at www.ChildrenofArthur.com